“We’re essentially tempting another wave,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told one of his many interviewers on April 6. “That would be a setback for public health, but that would be a psychological setback too,” he added, “because people have what we call COVID-19 fatigue, and we don’t want to have to go back to shutting things down.”
Here, the doctor has expressed a logical contradiction. The prevalence of “COVID-19 fatigue” all but precludes the possibility of “shutting things down” again because the political authority for such draconian policies is derived from the consent of the governed. That might not seem like much of an obstacle to technocrats for whom the governed are more of a nuisance than the font from which all legitimate political authority springs, but public sanction matters quite a lot to elected officials. That’s especially true for local representatives who, in our federalist system, are closer to the ground and more exposed to their respective, narrow electorates.
Thus, the stage has been set for an internecine struggle within the Democratic Party, as Joe Biden’s administration seems intent on forcing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to shut her state down again despite the objections of her state’s voters.
Michigan is in a bad place. Despite its relatively impressive vaccination rates, the Great Lakes State is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases that has eclipsed the records set during winter’s pronounced resurgence of the virus. Hospitalizations are also on the rise. As of this past Saturday, almost two dozen Michigan hospitals had reached 90 percent capacity. Six Detroit-area facilities had reported more patients than they had during the first wave in the spring of 2020. Some facilities have begun reimplementing practices put in place at the outset of the pandemic—halting nonemergency procedures and banning visitors.
But if Gov. Whitmer expected the changing of the guard in Washington to yield more federal support for her state, she’s been proven wrong.
“Whitmer has made several direct appeals to the White House for a vaccine surge, CNN reported on Tuesday, “including in a 20 to 30-minute call with the President last week.” She has asked Washington to provide her state with an emergency cache of vaccine does to blunt the ongoing surge, but the Biden administration responded with a “blunt rebuff.”
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stressed that her agency was working on expanding testing capacity, containing outbreaks in state facilities such as prisons, and ramping up genomic sequencing. But there would be no change in the administration’s vaccine-allocation strategy.
There did seem to be a breakthrough last Thursday, as the state announced that it had secured nearly 160,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that would be shipped to universities and colleges. That was expected to put downward pressure on the surging number of COVID cases among people between the ages of 20 and 29, which have risen by 415 percent since February 19. But on Tuesday, the FDA announced that it advised against the distribution of this particular vaccine because precisely six out of 6.8 million recipients had developed serious blood clots after immunization—literally, less than a one in a million chance. Michigan’s hope for a miracle was summarily dashed.
When it comes to mitigating acute outbreaks, this administration and its allies seem to have only one tool to which they readily appeal: the hammer. And they are not being subtle in their efforts to convince Whitmer to use it.
For weeks, press reports on Michigan’s woeful condition have included leading references to the governor’s conspicuous refusal to lock down her state again. On Friday, Whitmer addressed those appealing for a new round of quarantining directly. While she advised Michiganders to avoid indoor dining—which is open at 50 percent capacity—and urged schools to pare back sports and consider a return to virtual learning, there would be no new lockdown. “To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates, or requirements,” Whitmer said.
“Policy change alone won’t change the tide,” the governor added. “We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.” This appeal to “personal responsibility” is a novel approach from a high-profile Democrat—one that flies in the face of her party’s instincts and, indeed, her personal predilections, if the stringent mitigation strategies she implemented last spring are any indication. What’s more, Whitmer’s recalcitrance represents a rebuke of the public health officials who have advocated a new round of lockdowns—a cohort whose guidance Democrats told us was nigh infallible.
In response to this act of defiance, the Biden administration’s CDC director stopped being coy and practically demanded that Michigan’s willful governor submit to the restoration of 2020’s terrible status quo.
“If vaccines go in arms today, we will not see an effect of those vaccines, depending on the vaccine, for somewhere between two to six weeks,” Walensky explained. “The answer to that is really to close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down.” This, she explained, was the only way to “flatten the curve.”
But the state’s governor knows the risks and rewards associated with such an indiscriminating public policy. They extend well beyond what public health officials consider important—little things like practicality and feasibility, social and civic comity, the perpetuation of economic activity, and the public’s mental health. Most of all, our elected representatives fear the political consequences associated with imposing extreme measures on a weary public. The medical establishment might sneer at such a trifling concern, but its authority is also a derivative of the mandates dolled out by the voting public. If public health officials are jealous stewards of their own credibility and influence, they dismiss “COVID fatigue” at their own peril.
The outcome of this contest is far from certain. The White House seems intent on forcing Michigan to shut down again, and Whitmer may fold under pressure from the president and her party. But even if she does, the resistance these maximalist appeals are encountering suggests that we are not going back to 2020.